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I got my wish.
I love Utah, but I truly despise the month of January there. I’ve said for years that, if I can have it my way, I will never spend the month of January in Utah again – and missing February wouldn’t hurt, either.
Well, we’re off to a pretty good start. We went to Hawaii, followed by a trade show in Las Vegas, then to India – and I’m writing all of this from Almerimar, Spain. It’s surreal.
2017 began with Allison and me moving out of our apartment in Mount Pleasant, Utah. With some help from a few friends and loved ones, we got most of our belongings into a storage unit – we also shed a ton of stuff, selling and/or giving away the kind of things that tie us down.
It was -5 degrees the day we moved out. Ugly-cold. I actually got freeze-burns on my fingers from handling the frigid steel lock on our storage unit. But we got out in the last possible moment, and sped down to Las Vegas, NV, where we would catch a flight to Oahu, HI. It was a rocky start. We got to the gate just as they closed the flight. It was my fault we were late, so I kicked myself as we settled in for a sleepless night in the airport. But the next morning we were under way. Hawaii!
My sister and brother-in-law were married years 6 years ago. They have two teenage boys from his previous marriage, and they’ve since adopted a beautiful little boy to join their crew. And, being LDS, they’ve all made the decision to be sealed together in the temple. For those of you unfamiliar with LDS Temple Sealings, some people do it on their wedding day, and others wait to do it later. In its simplest form, I suppose it’s a way to renew your wedding vows; we believe this can be done in a more lasting, eternal way, by doing so in a short, sweet ceremony inside any one of many LDS temples. A sealing ceremony can also include children, binding them to their parents as an eternal family. It’s a beautiful tenet of our belief system – one of my favorite things about it. The concept of the Eternal Family is as central to Mormonism as our belief in Christ. I’ll try not to get off topic, but here’s more info about LDS temples for the curious among you.
Anyway, they decided to do all of this in some place special to them, and that place was the Laie LDS Temple in Hawaii.
The only way we can afford all of this travel is to work from the places we visit. We try to schedule our day in a way that allows us to meet all of our work obligations, while balancing work with the need to play and explore. You know. Carpe diem, and all.
As you know, I have a real thing for motorcycles, and – whenever possible – I try to rent one when I’m in a new place.
You may also know I have a thing for BMW enduro motorbikes, particularly the F800GS. This model has been my companion on many an adventure. We named her Lie, after the Hawaiian goddess of the mountains.
One of the best parts of my job is that I can do it from anywhere with WiFi. When I worked in corporate cubicles, taking a break meant stretching my legs in a stairwell or – at best – going out for an Orange Julius at the nearby food court. But WiFi freelancing means when I take a break in a place like Oahu, I can go exploring along the coast for a quick ride, or go out and try any one of a million food trucks along Oahu’s North Shore.
Pro Tip: Get Korean BBQ any chance you get.
I loved riding past the pineapple fields. I don’t think I’ve ever seen pineapples still in the ground before.
Poor Allison was so sick while we were there. She had already been sick for the previous two weeks, and was struggling; plus, she had a ton of work to do that couldn’t wait. So she was a trooper, and didn’t come out with me much until the end of our stay the following weekend. I was glad she could join me.
We knew we wouldn’t be back this way again for a long time (maybe ever?), so we couldn’t pass up the chance to go out and see the Pearl Harbor Memorial. It was so worth it.
A ferry took us out to the Pearl Harbor Memorial, which is built over the sunken remains of the USS Arizona.
The USS Arizona is officially the final resting place of nearly a thousand U.S. servicemen. A total of 1,177 men died on board during the attack. Of those, only 229 bodies were recovered. The rest remain entombed in the sunken wreckage. Some of the men who served on the Arizona and survived the attack that day (and the war that followed) – who have lived into old age and passed away of natural causes – have , by special request, had their remains entombed inside the sunken Arizona. They wanted to be at rest with their brothers.
The Arizona has an oil leak, which they leave as-is. They say it leaks about 9 quarts of oil into the harbor each day. You can see the tiny droplets of oil float to the surface, one after the other (about every 1-2 seconds). Local legend is that the Arizona is crying for its lost crew, and that these tears of oil will continue to seep out of the hull until the last surviving crewman passes away.
It was touching, and I was moved to tears. I was mostly containing it, but this kind of stuff really resonates with me (as you know). I had my emotions mostly contained, but there was no hiding my tearful eyes.
It was then that a cute Japanese couple (about our same age range) approached me. The woman offered me a Kleenex. At first, I followed that stupid, gut reaction to say, “no thank you.” They smiled and turned away, and I realized I was missing out on an important moment. I followed after them and motioned that I would like a tissue after all. They offered it to me gladly, and with reverence, and the symbolism of what was happening struck me to my core. I was wrecked. It was so clear that they were there not just to see an interesting tourist attraction or historical monument. They saw me mourning our fallen, and – in their effort to offer some small comfort to me – it was clear they were to personally participate in the healing of those old wounds.
That moment softened me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and truly defined my experience there.
I’ve been wanting to share one of my favorite moments in Greece last summer. I’ll set it up, but I’m gonna start off with a tangent so don’t let it be too distracting.
I’ll try to set the scene.
When we took the boat back from Skiathos, we arrived at a port in Volos. We were about to buy bus tickets for the 4-hour drive back to Athens, but we got suckered into a Taxi ride all the way there, instead. For less money than the bus tickets. Remind me to tell you sometime about the part where Allison and I both considered very seriously the idea that we made a mistake by getting in the taxi, and were being kidnapped. We even got transferred from the first taxi to second taxi, with a driver who spoke zero English and was on the phone every 4 minutes. He was taking us well off course, and we ended up near a small airport. Allie, sitting to my left – directly behind the driver – leaned over to me at one point and whispered, “If it goes down, I’ll go for his eyes while you take care of the rest.” She was not joking.
We were not kidnapped, of course, and I hate to tell a story about something that almost happened but didn’t. So that’s not what this post is about.
I will say, though, that on that very same kidnapper-taxi ride back to Athens, about an hour or so into the drive, we randomly ended up taking a route along the coast that took us right past Thermopylae. It was fleeting, but I was thrilled to see it in person.
I’ve read that the sea (not in frame) used to be much higher, here, with the shoreline reaching roughly where you see that modern highway.
In the photo, above, you can see that canyon on the left side of the frame. Those are the “Hot Gates,” the route the Persians would need to take to continue their invasion of Greece (and the rest of Europe) back in 480 B.C. And that highway you see there is the one that our taxi driver ended up serendipitously taking back to Athens.
AS THE STORY GOES
Thermopylae (or Hot Gates, in Greek) is the setting of the famous battle in 480 B.C. where 300 Spartans, led by King Leonidas, fought alongside a Greek force of around 7000 against the Persian King Xerxes and his invading army of somewhere between 100K-150K, which was sweeping the globe. Many of the Greek city-states had already pledged allegiance to him, in order to save their necks. Athens and Sparta were among those who opposed Xerxes. The decision to march on Xerxes at Thermopylae was not popular, and was surrounded in political controversy.
The Battle of Thermopylae is famous for the Spartan’s heroic last stand in the narrow mountain pass on the shoreline of the Aegean Sea. Because of terrain, strategy, and the logistics of marching your army so far from home, going through the pass at Thermopylae was the only good route for Xerxes’ army. Any other route involved high risk of his army being cut off and stranded in Europe; but with the bridges they had already built, and the navy they had in the Aegean, the Persians theorized that if they held Thermopylae, they could march throughout Greece and well into Europe. It was here that, against overwhelming odds, the meager Greek forces held off the invading Persian host for three days.
There’s a ton more to the story, with many separate battles, naval warfare, and much more. But Thermopylae was arguably the hinge pin to all of it.
As the story goes, Leonidas led the small Greek force to Thermopylae and met the Persians at the entrance to the canyon. Man for man, the Spartans were far better warriors, and seriously outmatched the Persian soldiers/conscripts. And while the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by at least 14 to 1 (likely more like 20 to 1), the Persian numbers meant nothing within that narrow pass. The Greeks – more especially the Spartans – slaughtered wave after wave of the Persian invaders.
After the second day of fighting, Leonidas and his men were betrayed by a local Greek, who told the Persian commanders of a small mountain pass that led behind the Greek lines. Leonidas became aware of the betrayal, and – knowing the Persians would soon surround them – he ordered nearly all of the Greek host to retreat (later to regroup) while he stayed behind with his 300 Spartans and about 1100 other Greek soldiers. This group of roughly 1400 Greeks held the pass for one more day, securing the retreat of the larger Greek force. Many sources say the Spartans outlasted the rest of their Greek brothers in arms, until all were surrounded. Given the chance, they refused surrender.
All were killed. Their sacrifice helped to unite Greece and, in numerous ways, made possible the defeat of the Persians, and ultimately allowed for the formation and spread of democracy (an idea in its infancy at the time).
On a monument erected shortly after the battle is a short poem, whose translation comes out roughly:
Go tell the Spartans
Strangers passing by
That here, by Spartan law we lie
As you can see, I’m a real geek on the subject. It’s an inspiring story about a battle that profoundly affected the world in ways we’ll never fully understand. It’s a pivotal moment in world history. Who knows what the world would look like if Xerxes’ army was able to continue their march into Europe?
IT WAS ENOUGH
When we first arrived in Greece – because of some of the snags we hit with the crooks at Ryan Air – we had to choose which places we would and would not be able to visit. Remember that our business was about two and a half years old when we left, and we were doing this as minimalists, with an extremely limited budget; some have wondered why we went at all, with almost nothing in savings and such meager monthly income. It’s a fair enough question, from a conventional perspective. Maybe we had no business going at all.
Here’s my answer: If you have to ask why, the question is moot.
Anyway, you can imagine why I was disappointed when we had to re-assess our budget and I realized how just far out of the way Thermopylae is from where we were staying in Athens. We had to cut a few of the fun things, and visiting Thermopylae was one of them. Even when we went to Skiathos, the bus we took to Volos bypassed Thermopylae. It just seemed unrealistic to make it out there. I had written it off.
So imagine the grin on my face in the back of that taxi, when I saw the street signs on that coastal highway:
Θερμοπύλες | Thermopylae
With a start, I realized where we were. Allie did, too. She noticed the same green street sign and, excited for me, she asked, “is this it?” I looked eagerly out the right side of the taxi and recognized it in an instant. The Hot Gates.
Looking on the narrow mountain pass, I remembered a passage from the novel Gates of Fire (award-winning historical fiction by Steven Pressfield), where a young Spartan in training (roughly equivalent of a squire) named Alexandros asks one of the veteran Spartan soldiers if he fears going to battle. The soldier responds by squeezing at the flesh on his arm and says:
“Never forget, Alexandros, that this flesh, this body, does not belong to us. Thank God it doesn’t. If I thought this stuff was mine, I could not advance a pace into the face of the enemy. But it is not ours, my friend. It belongs to the gods and to our children, our fathers and mothers and those of Lakedaemon a hundred, a thousand years yet unborn. It belongs to the city which gives us all we have and demands no less in requital.”
With reverence and wet eyes, I took in as much as I could as we flew along the highway. My inner-warrior relished the moment as I looked on the ancient battlefield where such heroes died for something larger than themselves. Allie knew what was going on, and squeezed my hand without a word. We didn’t stop the taxi. Our driver spoke no English, and I didn’t need to see the touristy souvenir stands anyway. We passed by at highway speeds, and within minutes it was well behind us. But it was enough.
(Image collection from my post on Vagabond Original)
As Jeff mentioned in his post a few weeks ago, my travels and experiences across Africa were some of the most important times in my life. As significant as they were, I still sometimes dread sharing my experiences. How do you casually share a story about something that changed the entire course of your life? How do you share about the tragedy, the suffering, the simple pleasures, and the overwhelming joy – and explain how all those things could possibly exist in the same moment? I was often in the midst of an internal battle to reconcile and balance the combination of polar opposite emotions that usually accompanied every situation.
Even now as I write, my eyes well up with tears as I remember a tragic, and yet very sacred moment. It was 2005, my first time in Zambia, and only a few days into our trip. My fellow volunteers and I traveled to a nearby teaching hospital to visit our friend, the head nurse of the NICU. After she and her staff showed us around the few sparsely equipped rooms, we were free to wander the ward, assisting where we could.
Toward the back in a dimly lit room, I found rows and rows of tiny, quiet cribs. There were so many babies whose mothers had either abandoned them on the hospital steps or had died in childbirth. Too many of the babies were close to dying themselves; some did while we were there. They were so tiny and weak that they didn’t cry, just lied and waited. They had to drink formula from a cup as they were too frail to nurse from a bottle.
While the other volunteers busied themselves changing diapers and talking with new mothers, I felt the need to be with those babies whose time on Earth was hours from ending. Surrounded by loneliness and tragedy, I felt my heart numb as I subconsciously tried to protect myself from the overwhelming sadness. I didn’t want the trauma of what I was witnessing to define my time with them, so I slowly began to shift my focus. Instead of being overcome and wanting to distance myself, I wanted to honor them and their short time of life. I knew cognitively that I could transform this heartache into a holy moment and I was determined to do so. I held them and sang to them and prayed for their quick return Home.
Since that time, I’ve had numerous experiences when life is too overwhelming and I find myself retreating into the numbness. Through my experience in Zambia, I know that not only are you not protected when you distance yourself, but you miss out on empowering, sacred moments. When we build fortresses around our hearts, we really only wall in sadness and hurt. It is through our vulnerability that we find healing and beauty in life’s most brutal moments.
And so it is through my vulnerability of sharing these most holy moments that I hope to chip away those walls and encourage you to do the same.
Well this is it. Last video of our travels to Greece last summer. It takes you from our last days in Athens to the streets of NYC (my first visit ever). Amazing and surreal to go from seeing the remains of temples and buildings first constructed 5th Century B.C. to seeing the modern-day Manhattan.
The video starts out with us cruising through nearby neighborhoods and familiar sites that we walked through during our weekly routine. The Parliament building at Syntagma square. The food and markets at Monastiraki. Our metro station. The U.S. Embassy. Of course, before leaving Athens, we had to hike up the hill in the center of it all to see the Acropolis close up.
We were ready to go home.
Each time I’ve flown internationally, I’ve returned via NYC. But this would be the first time I actually left the airport and visited the city. It’s always a thrill to see the skyscrapers from the airports from the plane as you’re about to land. I almost don’t even mind the long wait to get through customs (almost). I enjoy the feeling of being back in the US, and seeing that giant American flag watching over the endless zig-zagging queue of travelers shuffling through line and waiting get their passport stamped.
Anyway, here’s last video from our wandering last summer:
Watch the other videos on our home page by scrolling down to that section. Or click here.
Allison’s sister, Annie, was there to pick us up when we got stateside. We arranged to get a hotel and spend a little time exploring some of that NYC has to offer.
I’ll include a few of my favorite images from NYC, in [roughly] the order that I saw experienced them.
TAKING THE STATEN ISLAND FERRY
MIDTOWN, THE SUBWAY, & LOWER MANHATTAN
9/11 MEMORIAL MUSEUM
BROOKLYN BRIDGE & NY AT NIGHT
It was stunning and a bit unbelievable to see the city up close for the first time. I’ve been to some big cities, but nothing like New York. I was amazed by the cleanliness of Central Park. I was surprised by the filth and complexity of the NY subway system, as compared to that found in London and Athens. I was gratified with the reverence and tone of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the busy-ness of Times Square.
Also, I was unimpressed by New York pizza that I’ve heard so much about. Meh. I’ll have to try Chicago next.
I really enjoyed walking the Brooklyn Bridge. While taking in the sites and sounds, I remembered watching the news footage the day of the 9/11 attacks, and watching all the masses leave Manhattan on foot using this same bridge (and others).
Overall, I was in awe of the scope of it all . . . just how big, and just how small New York is. I mean, they built it on a tiny little island, and filled up every possible space with buildings and people. To get to one of the biggest cities in the world, you have to take a boat or a bridge. Unreal.
By the time nightfall came – after all the flights and sleeping in airports and walking around Manhattan Island on foot – we were spent. Sitting on the ferry, the low hum and rumble of the engines was a soothing lullaby, and Allie prettymuch passed out immediately. Aside from getting back to Utah, our journey was at it’s end.
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My original plan with Allison was just a two-day, one-night motorbike ride to Sparta and back. But the exhilaration and beauty of being back on a motorcycle . . . in mountain country . . . in Sparta . . . we fell in love with the place and couldn’t leave right away. In fact, the tiny little town of Mystras (just 5 minutes outside of Sparta) was the place that really stole our hearts. So after ditching our plans and getting lost in the Taygetus Mountains west of Sparta, we made our way back to the town of Mystras and found a place to spend the night.
Mystras is a formerly-fortified town that sits on the steep slopes at the base of the Taygetus Mountains. They still proudly fly their own, bright-yellow flag side-by-side (sometimes) with the Greek flag. There’s some great Byzantine history there, and they still pride themselves on the role they played in the Greece’s long, war-filled history. In fact, the night we were there, we were surprised to be witness to the grand finish to a half-marathon which they hold annually to celebrate their heritage, and more specifically to commemorate the death of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Palaiologos, who ruled in Mystras until he went to war; he fought and died in defense of Constantinople from the Turks. His statue is prominently displayed in the city center.
I had a hard time sleeping that night, and after hours of trying to go back to sleep, I decided to go out for a walk at sunrise. The town was silent and bathed in golden light from the east.
My favorite part of that walk was the snap dragons (pictured above), growing right through the mortar of a rock wall. A fitting tribute to a tough, beautiful town stuck on the side of a mountain.
It was hard to leave Mystras. It’s become one of our favorite places; we’ve even remarked, since leaving, that if we ever go back go Greece it would be to stay in Mystras longer, and wander those mountains some more. But it was now Day 3 of our motorbike adventure, and we had some miles to cover if we were going to make Athens by sunset.
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